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‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’: Cannabis workers describe pushback against unionization efforts

Naomi Diaz / For CU-CitizenAccess

Ramy Akram-Ahmed, a wellness advisor at Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Champaign, Illinois, made $17 an hour while the parent company of Sunnyside, Cresco Labs, made $210 million in revenue in just the second quarter of 2021.

Illinois and cannabis giants like Cresco Labs are reaping the benefits of the booming cannabis industry, but workers like Ahmed said they are experiencing poor working conditions and lack of benefits in their cannabis jobs. 

In Illinois, there are 82 dispensaries, 21 cultivation centers and approximately 17,000 cannabis workers. 

Sunnyside employees said they thought cannabis jobs would generate well-paying careers as the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2020, which generated $1 billion in revenue for the state of Illinois by October last year. But workers quickly took notice that the prosperity from the cannabis industry wasn’t being distributed to its workers. 

Cresco Labs did not return repeated requests for comment.

According to Illinois Department of Labor Public Information Officer Paul Cicchini, there is an ongoing investigation into a minimum wage and overtime complaint against the Sunnyside dispensary, located at 1704 S. Neil St. in Champaign. 

Cicchini could not go into detail about the case as it is under review. But Champaign’s dispensary is just one of the few being investigated in the state. 

Records obtained from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) show Cresco Labs, Ascend Wellness Holdings and Curaleaf, three companies who grow and sell weed in multiple states, have had unfair labor practice charges and union petitions against them in the state of Illinois.

However, Cresco Labs’s six Illinois cases of unfair labor practice charges have been withdrawn, according to the labor board. 

Employees’ job security differs from management

Sara Frances, a Sunnyside wellness advisor, detailed her experience on wage disparity at the dispensary. 

“We’re being paid barely above minimum wage with no guaranteed raises,” Frances said. “We joined a union because we felt like we didn’t have the tools to make a dispensary job into a career.” 

Employees at three other Illinois-based dispensaries explained similar issues of demanding workloads, lack of job security and economic disparities between bosses and employees. 

“These big companies, like Cresco, ya know, are making a killing,” Ahmed said. “They’re gonna be set for years and years and they’re big players in this market, but the people working for them aren’t also equivalent to them in their personal job security.” 

Many employees also described seeing a disconnect in the company, where managers and those in higher positions would treat wellness advisors like “seasonal employees.” 

“It was a get in, get out and do your job type of environment,” he said. 

Ahmed recalls people being let go from the job for offenses like forgetting their I.D. badge, being a couple minutes late to work and for having issues with ATM machines inside the stores. 

Frances also stated that the turnaround time for workers was at an all-time high. 

According to the 2021 cannabis industry job report from Leafly, an acquisition tool and independent journalism site, an estimated 321,000 Americans work in the cannabis industry. The report said the United States has more legal cannabis workers than dentists, paramedics or electrical engineers, making marijuana the fastest growing job sector in the nation. 

Jobs in the cannabis industry have grown by 161% in the last four years. (Illustration: Joshua Titus for Leafly)

With that many workers fighting for a spot in the industry, some employees feel like dispensaries aren’t seeing a need to keep people around for the long haul.

“We want to make this job into a career, and I guess these companies don’t want that,” Ahmed said. “We just want them to take us seriously.”

A wellness advisor’s job is to help customers find useful cannabis strains. Patients come in wanting to use these products for recreational usage or for treatment for more serious illnesses like cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Dispensary employees are expected to know about the benefits of certain products in the store, but say they aren’t fully trained to do so. 

Unionization talks got “pushback” amidst growing number of unions in state

In January 2020, workers at a Cresco Labs growing facility in Joliet, Illinois became the first to ratify the state’s first cannabis union contract. Over 180 employees voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). 

The Sunnyside location in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood followed suit. In June 2020, 40 employees voted to join UFCW, becoming the first dispensary workers to ratify a union contract in Illinois. 

Eleven employees at Illinois dispensaries have since voted to join UFCW or Teamsters Local 777, but only two contracts have been officially ratified after almost two years of full legalization in the state. 

Ahmed and Frances both said they felt pushback from their employers when it came to unionization efforts. 

Ahmed said that Sunnyside management began to send out emails to their employees stating that they wouldn’t be a “family” if workers continued to assemble.

Both employees said these emails were constant and frequent. 

Employees also stated that managers would bring up anti-unionizing sentiments during morning meetings, describing what employees would “lose” if they joined a union.

“It felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ahmed said. “I kept telling my coworkers, what makes you think that they are going to start representing you accurately when they haven’t done so since we’ve been working here?”

Dispensary workers in Illinois are trying to push for unionization in the industry now before cannabis becomes legalized federally. This would allow cannabis workers to shape the industry in the beginning so that dispensary workers in the future will be guaranteed well-paying jobs and proper protections. 

“I don’t see a lack of stoners yet,” Ahmed said. “We know this industry is going to continue to prosper, so these companies need to be on board with us prospering too.” 

Naomi Diaz / For CU-CitizenAccess

Comments (1)

  1. I talked to a guy who’s business makes about 19 grand a day not including his grow operation which is fully separate. He started out of his garage in a small house he rented. He grew it over 5 years and now he makes bank. The profits are there. Everyone wants to smoke weed everyone wants to buy weed. And someone’s gotta grow and distribute it.

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